How Ghostwriting and Co-Authoring are Different

An article in yesterday’s trade press decried the recent announcement that novelist Wilbur Smith, who was signed to a six-book deal with HarperCollins, would be paired with co-authors for his forthcoming books because he admitted he couldn’t keep up with the writing pace on his own at age 79. There were claims of ghostwriting and shock and disappointment.

So let’s get a few things straight. First, ghostwriting is not the same as co-authoring. Second, neither practice is cringe-worthy.

Ghostwriting involves hiring a writer to take over primary responsibility for producing a manuscript, based on specific instructions, input, and background materials provided by the – often expert – author. Typically, schedule demands and/or dislike of the writing process lead authors to hand over the challenge of putting pen to paper to a writer who remains unnamed. (I would also argue that their name is not important, since the writer is following instructions and guidance and verbiage from their client, who came up with the book’s concept and message in the first place.)

That’s a ghostwriter – someone who works behind-the-scenes to prepare a manuscript at the direction of the author.

A co-author or collaborator is much more involved in the development of the book’s concept, takes on a part of or all the responsibility for writing, and who is identified as a participant in its creation.There is no shame in collaborating with another professional, whether on a book or a research project or an expedition, last time I checked.

Personally, I have authored, co-authored, and ghosted many books and assure you that the process for each is quite different. When I write a book based on an idea I proposed, I do all the research, interviews, writing, and editing. It’s extremely time-consuming. When I co-author books, as I did with my friend and colleague Jeff Wuorio several years ago, we split responsibility for research and writing down the middle because neither one of us could complete the book on our own with the schedule required. But when ghostwriting a book, I shoulder the responsibility for meeting the schedule and completing the work on my own, with no recognition of my role. I’m paid well for working in the background, but the process and responsibilities are quite different.

If Wilbur Smith has realized that he needs the assistance of collaborators to meet the terms of his six-book contract, how wise he is to ask for help and to be upfront about it. There should be no whispers later on about whether he wrote the book – he did.

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